After her face was used to sell her own medicinal tonic, men wrote to her describing it like a "nightmare"
In a week that saw Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones leave (and return to) Twitter after many racist Twitter trolls created what she called a “personal hell,” it’s worth reflecting that when it comes to this kind of misogyny, it really predates the Internet. Spare a thought for a 19th-century pharmacist by the name of Lydia E Pinkham, perhaps the first woman in the world to ever have to endure the irrational hatred of men. And it was all because of her face.
Pinkham’s face, it’s worth noting, was one of the most recognisable in the world, on a par, as reports Atlas Obscura, with the British monarch Queen Victoria in terms of its global reach. Pinkham’s visage was so visible because of the labels printed on her most famous creation, a herbal medicine she called her Vegetable Compound. An immediate success, the liquid medicine popular with women suffering from period pains would sell for decades even after Mrs Pinkham’s demise, but in its heydey, many men went to great lengths to inform her how distasteful they found the packaging.
Before inadvertently becoming the mother of trolldom, Lydia E Pinkham was almost entirely unknown. Her life was dedicated to children, either the ones she taught in a school in Lynn, Massachusetts, or the ones she tried to save from the demon drink as an active abolitionist. But after falling on hard times, she discovered her entrepreneurial spirit at the age of 56, and decided to bottle her family recipe for a cramp-relieving tonic.
An early advert for Pinkham's Vegetable Compound [Pixabay]
Mrs Lydia E Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was a blend of five different herbs known for their medicinal qualities. For decades she’d perfected the recipe, mixing fenugreek and black cohosh, adding in some seeds, liberally pouring plenty of alcohol into the mix. Her cordial was trusted by all of the women in her neighbourhood. In 1875, the first commercial batch was brewed and ready for sale.
As Sarah Stage says in Female Complaints, it was an immediate success. While the viscous dark liquid oozed out of the bottle to the delight of nobody, it was at least something for desperate women to turn to at a time when menstruation was treated with disdain by the medical community. Unsure how to treat the cramps and pains associated with the monthly cycle, some doctors would even take the drastic step of removing women’s ovaries, so swallowing a spoonful of a bitter compound was an easy, and lucrative, sell.
Sold under the tagline, “A Sure Cure... without the knife,” bottles of the Vegetable Compound sold like hot cakes. To boost the brand’s image, Pinkham made the decision to print her address on labels and adverts, inviting women with women’s medical troubles to write to her, for which she inevitably prescribed a hearty dose of her own medicine.
While business was steady, Pinkham’s sons Will and Dan felt sure that it could grow bigger and that marketing would be the key to its success. The letters of advice and recommendation sent in from around the country were quickly redistributed in flyers and pamphlets and republished in newspaper adverts. It was Dan’s idea to commission an artist to create a simple line drawing of his sage mother’s benign face to kindly grace the bottles of the compound. Pinkham’s honest features and friendly demeanour would entice even more women to trust in the product, Dan thought, and in 1879, Lydia Pinkham arrived.
A cover from one of the pamphlets created by her son that included letters from concerned customers, always advised to try the tonic [Wiki Commons]
It is worth noting that this decision wasn’t just a first for the company, rather it was a global game changer. “In the 19th century, a woman offering her image for circulation in the public sphere was almost unheard of,” says Elizabeth Lowry in Rhetorics of Names and Naming. While the image of men was 10-a-penny on everything from tobacco to match boxes, the women typically depicted in advertising imagery were nameless and fictional shoppers, sipping ecstatically on sodas or doting on children. In an unprecedented move, the inclusion of Pinkham’s mug changed everything.
But it’s also worth noting that Dan Pinkham didn’t mess around, posting off giant posters of his mother to any American drugstore that stocked Vegetable Compound to proudly display. Thousands of miniature ones were printed on collectible cards included with newspapers. Before long, Lydia was looking at Americans from coast to coast, staring out from bottles, positioned in windows, slapped everywhere. And as brand recognition came, so too did the haters.
“The portrait took on a life of its own,” writes Sammy R Danna in Lydia Pinkham: The Face that Launched a Thousand Ads, revealing how Pinkham’s portrait was often used to fill in for other famous women of a certain age, from First Ladies to Susan B Anthony. But it was the vitriolic letters she received from men that mark the genesis of the troll. In hundreds and thousands the letters arrived, addressed from men and telling Pinkham to change her hair style and to stop smirking. Take TG Scott’s 1880 letter as prime example of what Lydia had to put up with:
If it is necessary that you should parade your portrait in every country paper in the United States, can’t you, in mercy to the nation, have a new one taken once in a while? Do your hair a little differently, say? Have a different turn to your head and look solemn? Anything to get rid of that cast iron smile! You ought to feel solemn any way that your face pervades the mind of the nation like a nightmare and that you have become a bug bear to innocent children. Also, that portrait is destroying the circulation of the newspapers. I have stopped my county paper to get rid of it and I know of several flourishing papers that have been absolutely killed by it. I think my words express the heartfelt desire of a long suffering people and that I am sustained in this request by the strongest public sentiment ever brought to bear on any subject!
Within a couple of years, college choirs were harmoniously hating on Pinkham, belting out lines like “There’s a face that haunts me ever, there are eyes mine always meet / as I read the morning paper, as I walk the crowded street.”In fact, Lydia would even be immortalised in a UK number-one hit in 1969, with The Scaffold’s Lily the Pink, inspired by her vegetable concoction and the kind of homophobia that was socially acceptable at the time.
As for Mrs Pinkham and her formula, all of the hate and criticism of her looks didn’t hamper sales. When she died in 1883, Will and Dan took over the empire and decided to keep their mother’s face on the bottle. After all, but the end of the 19th century, she was, to quote LIFE magazine, “the best-known woman in America.” While the company officially closed down almost a century after Lydia bottled her first batch for sale, a number of contract and trademark transfers mean you can still purchase her Vegetable Compound today. Her face still stares out, haters be damned.